Characters should know by now that moving into a Victorian house whose former owners died by murder-suicide, is a bad idea.
In "American Horror Story," a new show on FX, the Harmons, Ben (Dylan McDermott), Vivien (Connie Britton), and Violet (Taissa Farmiga), have moved into such a house in L.A. to get away from their problems on the other coast. Guess what? It's haunted.
The show deals with classic horror tropes: The haunted house, the ghostly maid, and creepy murdered redhead twins, all make an appearance in the first episode. It mainly concerns itself, however, with parading disturbing imagery across the screen, at an absurdity level dialed to extreme. It's a dark and stylish vision, perked up with moments of biting humor and gratuitous nudity.
Though he's best known for "Glee," Ryan Murphy's has always been interested in human cruelty. "American Horror Story" takes up the psychosexual carnival that "Nip/Tuck" left behind and adds ghosts. Example: A scene in which Ben walks in on shapeshifting ghost-maid Moira masturbating in a chair before running away to jerk off and cry.
Murphy's backlist is not especially supernatural, but he has always shown a keen appreciation of the human monster. "Nip/Tuck," which started off with penis-less serial killer/rapists and breast implants full of heroine, managed, by the end of its run, to get even crazier. Neo-nazis, bloodthirsty transsexuals and all kinds of body-disturbed plastic surgery patients studded the show from front to back.
The pileup of zany plot twists is a gloriously demented ride, though it doesn't make much sense. If you're looking for sympathetic characters facing believable problems, this is not your show.
"American Horror Story" gives Murphy the chance to present real freaks, and not just ones born out of the excesses of contemporary culture. Dennis O'Hare plays an ex-murderer with burns on 70 percent of his body, while Evan Peters gives us a spooky teenage sociopath who may or may not be a paranormal apparition. Jessica Lange is in top psycho-biddy form as a klepto neighbor with a Virginia drawl and a perverse glint in her eye.
But, as usual, the brunt of Murphy's emotional tortures are visited upon his main characters, the Harmon family. Ben is a psychiatrist (meaning, I hope, that we get some weird consultations in the manner of "Nip/Tuck") whose infidelity is exposed just before Vivien stillbirths at seven months. Vivien is shaky, sardonic and bruised, while Violet is a self-cutting teenage misfit who misses the East Coast. The pilot begins to torment them with hallucinatory visions of blood and sex, but we can also probably expect that these three will do a great deal to torment each other all on their own.
"American Horror Story" raises a lot of questions -- Is the house haunted? Why? Who are all these zany people and what do they want? But the answers don't look as if they'll matter much, other than as vehicles with which to unveil more ghouls, more sex, and more madness.
Watch the trailer for "American Horror Story" below: